Upgrading for GRID Resilience in 2022 and later

Last Update: Jun 3, 2024 @ 18:25 Current status information, subject to change.

Climate change is here, and we all have to do our bit to reduce our carbon footprint, however small, while leaving the big stuff to governments and industry that have the big bucks.

So what can a home owner actually do that will make some difference? The answer is, surprisingly, quite a lot, and it does not have to break the bank.

Making your house more energy efficient is a very good place to start …

Canadian federal and Quebec grant money is available. See the Canada Greener Homes (due to end by mid 2024) and RenoCLIMAT programs.

Doors and Windows replacement … can be expensive when multiple windows are required such as for older houses. Be aware that any new door or window is required to be EnergySTAR rated to be eligible for a grant, and that some suppliers / vendors (even major ones…) have not completed the EnergySTAR homologation process for all their products that might otherwise be eligible. Be also aware the just replacing window glass does not qualify for a grant.

Upgrading the attic insulation … to R50 from R20 is v-e-r-y effective, affordable cost and has a large grant payment. Our insulation upgrade cost $1600, and the grant (via Quebec RenoCLIMAT program) that arrived some 6 weeks later was about $490 + another $365 for the improvement in air tightness.

Reducing (but not eliminating) reliance on fossil fuels … is possible. In Quebec as of 31 December 2023 (and elsewhere too), upgrading to natural gas from heating oil is totally prohibited. This means that a oil furnace user has to replace it with an electric furnace only. The good news is that if a natural gas furnace installation already exists, it can be replaced with another natural gas furnace, or an electric furnace if desired.

The big question is whether some level of gas usage is necessary, partly because full electric conversion is not economically possible. For example, installation of a central heat pump as the primary heat source and keep a natural gas furnace for auxiliary heating for the really cold days of winter. A natural gas Domestic Hot Water System (DHWS) does not need electricity, and provides hot water even when the grid goes down. There is a pilot flame that starts the DHWS when needed.

Our local natural gas company has a program that is increasing their percentage generation and supply of renewable gas.

Electric vehicles? Very nice, but let’s face the current financial facts: only people with enough disposable income can purchase or lease and insure one, while the rest of us will have to keep on (for the moment at least) with internal combustion vehicles.

To summarize … what does grid resilience mean? At the most basic level, this means survival during the winter months with an adequate heat source to protect life and property. Access to communications with first responders and government agencies is desirable.

So …full electrification is not an option, and an alternative power source is required.

To date, we have added attic insulation, upgraded our previous 2005 installed Primary NG Furnace (92% efficient) + Secondary Heat Pump (worked to -8C) + gas DHWS to a hybrid system as of 2023, being a Primary Heat Pump (works to -27C), secondary (existing) NG Furnace + replaced the NG DHWS, plus an emergency external power supply (Firman T08072) fueled by natural gas.

Given the age of the existing NG furnace, its efficiency has likely reduced somewhat. A new NG furnace is rated at 96% efficiency.

Entries following are the most recent first.

Fixing a Natural Gas leak, May 2024

Starting October 2023 … monitoring the operation

The days are getting shorter, and the leaves are falling. Soon we will have the first frost and then the winter snow. These paragraphs will be updated as we see how to keep the equipment operational.

Run the grid / generator setup, ensure household members know how to do it. Clear the snow around the generator so that it can be moved as necessary. The generator output cable should be kept in the house, until it is needed, so it remains flexible and does not freeze. The natural gas hose will be left outside connected to the gas supply. Coming … analysis of the summer / winter operating costs compared to the last two years.

Run the generator, no loads, for around 20 minutes every month. This ensures that the battery is charged and can run the starter. Firman advise to run for a maximum of 14 hours non-stop, then power down for 2-3 hours. This means that running overnight is possible.

A record of the operational hours is to be kept. The first oil change is required after 25 hours use, and every 100 hours thereafter.

<more to add … visit again soon!>

September 29, 2023: Backup Generator and Transfer Switch Installation

Using the generous grant money from Canada Greener Homes (for our new heat pump install) we were able to purchase a Firman tri-fuel generator and have a Generac Transfer Switch professionally installed. The intent is to run the generator only when needed on natural gas, as this does not require any additional fuel source. Also, if the grid is down for even a short period, getting gasoline very likely becomes problematic. Same for propane, along with a large enough gas cylinder which is required to be placed some distance from the house, which requires expensive underground piping. The Firman generator provides a dual 120Vac 30A cable (4 wires) connection (and several others) that is used for the 240Vac heat pump and essential 120Vac circuits only. The clothes drier and the kitchen stove (both 240Vac devices) are intentionally not connected when the generator is selected, because the Natural Gas fuel source permits running power of 5500W only. Propane permits 7250W, and gasoline 8000W. For a grid outage of a few hours or days, cooking with the microwave and the outdoor BBQ is acceptable. Similarly, the washing machine is supported, and clothes can be dried outside or by hanging in the furnace heated laundry.

We were concerned about the age of the original 100A distribution panel that dates from 1975, however the installation electrician, on inspection, assured us that it did not need to be replaced, or upgraded to a 200A status. In any case, our aim was to minimize our use of electricity, not add more power hungry devices.

The transfer switch installation moved a subset of circuits from the distribution panel to the transfer switch breakers. When the grid is up, all house circuits are operational, and the generator is not operational. When the grid goes down, we have to first manually connect the generator to the Reliance Controls through-wall panel, which then routes generator power to the transfer switch. The transfer switch has a single button to select either grid or generator as the power source. In generator mode, only the subset circuits are operational. These are the 240Vac for the heat pump, plus 120Vac for the furnace and fan, plus essential other 120Vac circuits only. We don’t need or try to power the entire house.

The two ECOFLOW storage battery generators can be connected to the sockets on the Reliance Controls through wall assembly (see below) using extension cords. This enables both ECOFLOW unit batteries to be charged, and hence, for example, provide portable 120V light or power for small electronics, or areas in the house that do not have active power circuits.

If the generator is running, and the grid comes back on, we must follow the Firman instructions to safely shut down the generator. This involves switching off the Generac loads, and run the generator for 3-4 minutes to stabilize the equipment temperature.

The Firman generator. Note the 4-wire yellow power cable, and the gray natural gas fuel hose.
The Firman has multiple output sockets. We use the four wire 2x120V/30A option to support the Reliance Controls box, see image below.
Simple weather cover to protect against rain and snow while generator is running. Cover is angled to drain off water.
The four wire cable plugs into the underside of the Reliance Controls Through-wall box, which is hard-wired to the Generac Transfer Switch in the basement. House 120Vac sockets (powered by the grid only) are on the right.
Reliance Controls through wall connection, inside the house. This solves the issue of keeping the house closed during winter. The panel also has two white LEDs that show that generator power is available from each 30A circuit (each row of three sockets).

100A Distribution Panel with Generac Transfer Switch. Note the new white breakers that route grid-sourced 240Vac to the Generac. When the Generac is selected, it provides the 240Vac to the heat pump. Also, the 240Vac to the stove and clothes dryer is not connected.

The intent is to connect as needed the through-wall sockets to the ECOFLOW power supplies or extension cords to other devices or rooms on a temporary basis.

NG Furnace Fresh Air Input Update

While the NG furnace has a small exterior input air pipe, the HOUSE itself still requires a secondary input for fresh air. This input was always in place, about 40cm above grade. The Firman generator when running creates carbon monoxide (CO) exhaust, which is slightly lighter than air and diffuses evenly. In addition, it is recommended that the exhaust be about 6m from the house. In our case, the adjacent house is about 8m away, so the exhaust has to point away from both houses.

To ensure the intake air is indeed fresh and clear of winter snow, a 1m above grade double elbow made from 4″ ABS pipe components (including rodent and bug screens) was constructed and connected to the existing foundation hole. The black pipes were painted with white appliance epoxy spray enamel. There is a CO Detector in the house main floor, and another in the basement near the DHWS and furnace. A third detector built into the Firman generator will shut it down if CO is detected.

April 6, 2023: Ontario-Quebec Ice Storm

This major weather event took down thousands of trees and the grid was down for over 24 hours. It was also a test of our current state of partial resilience, and a learning exercise on keeping the ECOFLOW units charged. The biggest problem was the house temperature. The recently installed attic insulation slowed the heat loss significantly, but when the house reached 13C, with a neighbor’s help, his gasoline generator was connected to the temporarily isolated natural gas furnace and fan circuit.

March 13, 2023 : Getting to know the ECOFLOW Power Supplies, and their limitations.

The ECOFLOW Delta MAX is the main resilience power supply

The ECOFLOW River 2 MAX is the most portable, and can be used to power small devices.

Both ECOFLOW boxes are now linked into the house LAN. The ECOFLOW smart phone app can be used from anywhere to control and manage the operation. Some app screen shots are below.

Installed power supplies are connected to the app.

Clicking on a power supply icon displays the current status. Above has no external devices connected as yet.
The Settings page displays the user controllable features.

The app is very comprehensive and operationally robust. Both ECOFLOW units are connected via WiFi, with BlueTooth an apparent option. What the app does not provide for a network hardware engineer like me are the MAC and IPv4 addresses. A typical user won’t however need these: getting them requires the use of a port scanner app. The scanner app I used reports the used MAC and IPv4 addresses and that the Manufacturer (of the WiFi hardware chips) is expressif Corporation.

January 2023 : Review of hardware upgrades and RenoCLIMAT program

It is important to note that RenoCLIMAT participation requires that the first Energy Efficiency Evaluation is done BEFORE any upgrades are done or paid for. RenoCLIMAT also requires that suppliers are Quebec companies.

Quebec manufactured Supreme SUPRM24CC (central system)

This was the refit project’s major investment. The 22-year old American Standard unit was still functional but with a now unsupported refrigerant, and had only one failure (a compressor starter capacitor) during that entire time. Operationally, the gas furnace was running a lot of the time once the temperature was below about -5C.

The Supreme unit (HP) was installed in January 2022, so we know what to expect operationally for the remaining 2022-2023 winter months. Operationally, it runs quietly most of the time. There is a so called “Defrost Mode” that kicks in most times (for a minute or two) when the AUX (i.e. the NG furnace) Heating mode is required. The HP compressor runs at high (max?) speed, and is noticeably loud, measured at 1m distance, at around 50 dB, similar to listed in the Supreme specifications. Some of the noise was tracked down to a slightly loose front screen mounting screw causing vibration. Thermostat control is by the programmable Sensi ™ Thermostat, and also via a smart phone app, see images below. Some tinkering with the app set up results in a minimal use of the AUX heating mode.

The Sensi thermostat app initial screen. Shown here is Feb 25 (-21C) with the AUX mode running. Note the Usage and Schedule options.
The app usage graphs shows that the Heat Pump is doing most of the work for heating, with the AUX (gas furnace) needed around 1.5 hours. The data for Feb 24/25 (daily temperature around -20C with wind chill) still shows the heat pump maintaining the house at 21C.
Outside temperature is around 0C, and the heat pump is set to maintain 20C in the house. The heat pump is not operating at this moment.

Attic Insulation Update

The first Energy Efficiency Evaluation identified the existing insulation R-rating as cellulose fiber R20. Addition blow-in fiber updates to R50. Soffit panels are fitted to ensure that air will still circulate within the roof space and avid condensation. About 25 cm of additional cellulose fiber is blown in on top of the existing R20 insulation.

Attic preparation for the R50 install.
The contractor’s equipment shreds the blocks of cellulose fiber and blows it into the attic.

The upgrade was installed in February 2022 and took about four hours. We now have two winters and one summer to evaluate the effectiveness of the R50 installation. In summer, the A/C mode can easily maintain the house at 25C. In winter, setting the house to 20C is maintained with very little fluctuations and minimal use of the heat pump. Even on sub -20C days and nights, the heat pump does the main work (if noisily at times) and minimal AUX (furnace) heating. The AUX (furnace) mode typically runs at around 1.5 hours per day.

In summary, a very worthwhile update, as was the grant cheque from RenoCLIMAT.

December 23/24/25 2022 : Major Winter Storm

In Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, some 300,000 people are without power due to the wind, ice and snow. As of today (25th), we have lost power for only 15 minutes. Other areas within a 30km radius are not so fortunate.

November 2022 : Defining Resilience Requirements : what are these when the GRID goes down?

The first stage of a refit project is to define the requirements, and only afterwards decide what technologies and equipment are the most suitable and affordable within budget. Put another way, identifying the “WHAT” before the “HOW” is the desirable approach.

In the summer months…

The primary issue is keeping the fridge running, the internet connected, and a few lights working. We can do without the Heat Pump in A-C mode, the electric stove / oven, and the clothes dryer, all of which require 240 Vac. The gas furnace and fan runs on 120Vac. The washing machine runs on 120 Vac, and laundry dries on an outside clothes line.

Since we have a natural gas BBQ, all cooking can be done on this. Same applies to the DHWS.

Some sort of 120 Vac generator, preferably NOT gas or propane powered, is necessary. A gas or propane generator has to be installed some distance outside, is likely noisy, and generates carbon monoxide.

Implication: some sort of solar panel / inverter-generator / battery solution is necessary!

In the winter months…

The BIG primary issue is providing ENOUGH heat to prevent any pipes freezing. The secondary issue is keeping the fridge running, the internet connected, and a few lights working.

This does not mean heating the whole house.

The natural gas powered DHWS is source of some heat, and no electrical connection is needed. As for summer, all 240 Vac devices are not usable.

So … one or two portable electric heaters is a solution. A semi-permanent, simple natural gas fireplace with a manual start and 120Vac fan (and obviously vented to the exterior) is another part of the solution.

Is a natural gas fireplace actually necessary? Perhaps not. The gas furnace and fan blower motor runs on 120 Vac and draws around 70 to 400W/h depending on the operating mode. The time this could be used depends on the battery capacity and solar recharging time is the issue. More on this to be added soon.

What sort of Solar Power Generator designs are possible?

Simply put, the installation requirements are a storage battery that is charged either from the Grid or via solar panels (or both), one or more dc-ac inverters to create 120Vac. Options are internet reporting and control, and perhaps two-way metering equipment to allow excess power to be returned to the Grid.

The above diagram shows the grid connected to the house uni-direction meter. Double phase power is passed to the main breaker box where the majority of circuits are 120 Vac, and the rest are 240 Vac for baseboards if installed, clothes drier, stove and heat pump.

While the grid is available, the Inverter box converts 120 Vac to Vdc to charge battery and automatically stops once the battery is fully charged. Similarly, a Vdc may be available from the solar panels to charge the battery.

When the grid goes down, the AC Source Select switch disconnects from the breaker panel and connects to the Inverter 120Vac supply. A subset only of vital house circuits may be powered.

October 2022 Energy Efficiency Evaluation

Retrofitting included

  • Replacing 22 year old -10C capable central heat pump with -27C capable new model.
  • Replacing front and rear doors with EnergySTAR models
  • Replacing basement windows with EnergySTAR models.
  • Replacing a defective sunroom window glass with new double glaze Argon filled panel.
  • Updated attic insulation to R50 from R20
  • Located and plugged air leaks around windows and various exterior walls

The improvement in energy efficiency is noticeable. The effect of the attic insulation was the most impressive. Prior to the upgrade the house temperature would fluctuate by 3-6 degrees and require the heat pump or/and furnace several times per day. After the upgrade the house temperature remained almost constant with minimal Heat Pump operation.

December 2021 Energy Efficiency Evaluation

The first evaluation is required to identify the starting conditions so any improvements after refit operations can be measured.

A number of refit issues were identified, specifically the replacement of the functional but obsolete heat pump, replacement of the original (1975-vintage…) front and rear doors that had significant air leakage, and the attic R20 insulation upgrade.

<more to be added … check again soon!>

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